Tornado Tracks, Microbiome Bias, and Overtime Pay for Postdocs

12:00 minutes

The town of Moore, Oklahoma has been hit by four destructive tornadoes in the past 16 years. Maggie Koerth Baker, senior science reporter at FiveThirtyEight.com, fills us in on the state of tornado science and what this tornado hotspot can teach researchers.

Plus, a look at the good and potential bad of giving postdocs more money for their contributions to research.

Segment Guests

Maggie Koerth

Maggie Koerth is a science journalist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Jocelyn Kaiser

Jocelyn Kaiser is a staff writer for Science Magazine in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’re going to revisit a show we did in 1994. We’re going to look back to the future of online news and the electronic newspapers.

But first, you’ve heard of Tornado Alley, right, that section down the middle of the country that gets hit by the bulk of the twisters. Could there be a Tornado City? And I’m talking about Moore, Oklahoma. It has been hit by four powerful tornadoes in the last 16 years. What does this tell scientists?

Maggie Koerth-Baker is here to tell us that story and other short subjects in science. She’s a senior science writer for fivethirtyeight.com based out of Minneapolis and joins us from the NPR studios. Welcome back.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: [INAUDIBLE] Well, what made you focus in on Moore, Oklahoma? Why were you interested in this story?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: So my dad has lived in Oklahoma City since 1994. He went down there to teach art at Rose State Community College. And in 1999, when the Bridge Creek-Moore tornado, which is one of the biggest tornadoes on record, came through Oklahoma City, it went literally outside the door of his office. He opened the door, stood out kind of behind where he works, and watched this thing just tear apart an auto dealership.

And he’s been calling me ever since whenever these tornadoes hit Moore and asking me, what’s going on? You’ve got to tell me what’s going on. And finally, I was able to kind of dig into this research, and it turns out that there kind of is and kind of isn’t something going on. It involves this really interesting mix of chance and also physics.

Because Moore is right in this spot where, as you said, Tornado Alley, that’s a really common place for tornadoes to happen because that’s where cold, dry air from the Rocky Mountains and the hot, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico meet. That’s where you’re most likely to get these storms.

And it’s also part of a mini-Tornado Alley that’s been identified. Some researchers went back and looked at historical tornado data for the last 50, 60, 70 years and found these places all over the US where big tornadoes seem to be more likely to hit. And Moore is in one of those, though it’s more broad than just the town. It’s kind of a regional, multi-county thing.

But when you get down to the level of individual risk, it’s not really any different from living anywhere else in the state of Oklahoma. Insurance companies don’t charge you more because you live in Moore. And part of that has to do with the fact that your town can get hit by a tornado four times, and you, yourself, might never actually be hit by that tornado.

IRA FLATOW: Hm. Is there any connection between these tornadoes and climate change? Anybody, I mean, connected those dots at all?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: That was one of the really interesting things that I ran cross in the course of this research is that there’s not really any evidence that climate change is increasing the number of tornadoes. We have found more tornadoes in the last 40 years, but that has more to do with better reporting than it has to do with anything else.

What there is evidence of is that tornadoes are clustering more. So you have fewer tornado days, days with any tornadoes, but you’re having more days where there are a bunch of tornadoes. And the time of year is shifting a little bit around as well. I mean, it used to be that Oklahoma, all of their big tornadoes happened in early May, late April. Now they’ll get tornadoes even into November.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Wow. All right. That’s quite an interesting story. Let’s move on to another topic that you’re following, the microbiome, which is something we talk about all the time. And the story here is?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: So there’s a lot of different stories on this. We actually had a big Gut Week package on FiveThirtyEight last week. And one of my colleagues, Anna Barry-Jester, wrote about bias in microbiome research. So there’s been all of these studies done about what kinds of bacteria live in the human gut, and it turns out that almost all of them have been done on white people that live in Europe and the United States.

So what we have is not a human microbiome project. What we have is an American, white American, human microbiome project, which actually has really big consequences to how we think about the microbiome. So for instance, it only took sampling 27 members of the Hadza tribe in Tanzania to see that this bacteria that scientists thought was absolutely crucial to gut health wasn’t. None of the Hadza samples had it at all, and those people were perfectly healthy.

So there’s all of this research that still needs to be done. That if somebody is claiming that they’re going to tell you what a healthy gut is, we have no idea what a healthy gut is. We don’t even know what a normal gut is.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And the White House has announced the National Microbiome Initiative.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. And it kind of remains to be seen yet how much this bias issue is going to affect that. It’s something that researchers are becoming more and more aware of. And hopefully the studies that go into that research are going to be a little bit less biased in who they’re sampling.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because as we talked about it a lot, there’s so much to know about the microbiome and how it affects just about all parts of our body.




IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And finally, it’s finally happening. Octopus and other cephalopods might become our tentacled overlords, just like in the science fiction movies. What’s the story there?

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. So some researchers were concerned about a population of cuttlefish in Australia. And because there’s this long history of bad things happening to ocean creatures– between climate change changing the make-up of the oceans, between overfishing, there’s a lot of different populations of sea creatures that are on the decline. So these researchers assumed that things were going poorly for these cuttlefish.

But when they dug into the data, what they found is that not just that population, but cuttlefish, squid, octopuses, all sorts of cephalopods all over the world are just doing like gangbusters. Their populations are growing. Their populations are moving into new niches.

And what the scientists think is going on here is that these same things that are leading to the decline of other fish populations are leaving these ecological niches open. And cephalopods are really flexible creatures, ecologically-speaking. Octopuses are crazy smart, and all of these animals have all these kind of different adaptations.

They have pretty short life cycles, which allows them to kind of develop through a lot of different adaptations quickly. And they’re taking over and breeding in niches that they could never have had access to before because there used to be something else there, and now that thing is gone.

IRA FLATOW: Well, global warming has replaced one thing with another thing.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. And we don’t really know what the outcome of this is going to be long term. Thinking about this story, I was thinking about the fact that jellyfish are also exploding because of warming oceans. So I guess, at the very least, it means that the future of the oceans is heavily tentacled.

IRA FLATOW: Well, not exploding literally. I mean, the population is.


IRA FLATOW: OK. I want to make that so the tweets don’t start coming out about at this afternoon.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: No, no, you’re not going to get sprayed with jellyfish.

IRA FLATOW: Maggie Koerth-Baker is senior science writer for the fivethirtyeight.com website based out of Minneapolis. Thanks again for joining us, Maggie.

MAGGIE KOERTH-BAKER: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: And now it’s time to play good thing, bad thing.


Because every story has a flip side. Postdocs, maybe you are one of them. You know they work long hours for a modest income, and they power a vast swath of the nation’s scientific research in the process. Now the federal government says they, like many other workers around the country, should be eligible for overtime pay. Not everyone is embracing this news unconditionally. Here with a look at the good and the potentially bad of paying postdocs more is my guest Jocelyn Kaiser, a staff writer for Science magazine. Welcome to Science Friday.


IRA FLATOW: All right. Explain the new overtime rules.

JOCELYN KAISER: OK. So it’s a rule that applies to all workers, not just postdocs. And what it means is that– until now if you made around $23,000 a year, if you worked more than 40 hours a week you got overtime. Well, now that level is being raised to about $47,500 a year. And the new rule says it explicitly applies to postdocs, as well as other workers.

And since many postdocs earn less than that right now, they’re either going to have to get paid overtime, or their employers are going to have to raise their salaries so that they meet that threshold, and they won’t have to get overtime at that point.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s good news for the postdocs, but bad news for the people who pay them?

JOCELYN KAISER: Exactly. It’s good news for postdocs because many of them make less than $47,500 a year, and so they’re very happy about it. But it’s bad news for the labs they work in because this rule goes into effect December 1, and so those labs are going to have to find the money in their budgets to pay this extra few thousand dollars. And it’s also, yeah, it could be bad news for their institutions that are going to have to help the labs come up with the money.

IRA FLATOW: And there are some people that feel that even with this bump required under the overtime act that postdocs still won’t be paid enough for what they are doing.

JOCELYN KAISER: Yeah, that’s right. Some organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences, have said they should be paid at minimum $50,000 a year. I mean, these are people who are far enough along in their careers that they have families often. They’re not just graduate students or students. And so some groups would like to see that level higher.

IRA FLATOW: And so what might happen if the budgets can’t absorb these higher wages?

JOCELYN KAISER: So one concern is that it could impact the work of a lab. They may have to take money from something else, like some experiment to help pay the postdoc. Another possible consequence is that labs will hire fewer postdocs, and there will be fewer postdoc jobs. And that the labs instead will rely more on graduate students and technicians.

IRA FLATOW: Can the researchers go back to who’s ever funding them, like the federal government, and say, you know, this is coming. Can you give us a few more bucks here?

JOCELYN KAISER: Well, one of the agencies that funds probably about half the postdocs in the country, the National Institutes of Health, their funding supports maybe 40,000 postdocs. They have told their community that they are going to help labs do this. And one thing they’re going to do is they now have these fellowships specifically for postdocs that are– in some cases, the beginning postdocs are paid less than that new threshold. So they’re going to raise that threshold.

But then many more postdocs are paid not directly through a fellowship, but from a research grant. And the NIH hasn’t said how they’re going to do it exactly, but they’ve said they’re going to help labs make the transition. So maybe they will give them a little extra money to help fund the salaries.

IRA FLATOW: They could surely use it. Thank you, Jocelyn, for taking time to be with us today.

JOCELYN KAISER: You’re welcome.

IRA FLATOW: Jocelyn Kaiser is a staff writer for Science magazine.

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